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December 18, 2006

Could the British Government Learn from the Past? Using History, Making British Policy: The Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76 - Peter Beck

Posted by Jeremy Black

Using History, Making British Policy: The Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76
by Peter Beck
Pp. xii+310. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006
Hardback, 50

This interesting, well-written and clearly-organised book will be of value to those interested in British governmental policymaking in the third quarter of the last century and, more generally, to those concerned with the potential relevance of historical study in the public sphere.

The book is organised into four sections, a substantial introductory one that considers the use of history in Britain, a second on using history in the Treasury, a third on the Foreign Office, and a concluding section. The tale is not an encouraging one for those who advocate relevance. Drawing on a wide range of sources and reflecting a sound grasp of administrative practice and culture, Beck ably demonstrates the extent of the neglect by government in its deliberations of the historical work it had commissioned. His meticulous scholarship demonstrates that, despite claims of the value of the historical perspective, policy, instead, was the function of what was negotiable within Whitehall.

At times, the perspective seems very recent. The historical report on what Burke Trend termed "the deplorable history of the Festival Gardens" project, established as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain, would have been useful reading for those considering the Millennium Dome. Similarly, Rohan Butler's 1962 History of the Abadan Crisis of 1951 offers an interesting viewpoint on the more recent Iraq crisis. Butler's work was certainly read at the Foreign Secretary level, although Lord Strang, who had been Permanent Under-Secretary of State, questioned whether such histories would possess real practical utility for policymakers.

That indeed is the rub. A number of points arise from Beck's study. Lawrence Helsby, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Labour, responded in 1962 to a detailed work on The Government and Wages, 1945-1960, by arguing that there would be differences between Treasury and Ministry perspectives before writing:

The narrative is naturally a highly condensed account of a complex series of events. In the nature of the case it could not give a full assessment of the background against which views were formed and decisions taken. It is arguable that in any case the circumstances surrounding incomes policy have changed so greatly in the last year that past experience, even when finally understood, is of limited value as a guide to the future.
Conversely, Beck points out that pertinent points made by historical studies, for example Granger-Taylor's 1965 report on aircraft purchasing, could be ignored by ministries that did not find them convenient or had simply filed them away in a cupboard to gather dust.

Beck is overly fond of exclamation marks and, more seriously, seems disinclined to query the views of Margaret Gowing, who, on the evidence he cites, seems somewhat self-important and overly-inclined to underrate the difficulty of using the material she and others produced. Nevertheless, this first-rate study deserves wide attention as an exemplary treatment of its subject.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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